Monday, May 18, 2015

The Ecphonesis O

O Me! O Life!

By Walt Whitman

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.


The poem "Oh Me! Oh Life!" was published in 1855 and part of a volume of poetry called Leaves of Grass. Click here for a copy of Leaves of Grass I fell in love with it after I saw “Dead Poet’s Society” the movie starring the brilliant Robin Williams (RIP).

Click here to see Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society

This is my favorite poem. Of the thousands and thousands of pieces of poetry that contend to be #1 on my list, this is it.

Poetry is special because the combination of theme, rhythm and word choice can elevate emotion like music. In fact, poetry should be read in silence to really feel what it’s trying to say. Every single time I read "O Me! O Life!" I am lifted. I feel better. It’s a like an old friend that hugs you and says “everything is going to be okay. You matter. You are enough.”

In the beginning it sounds like a poem of lament, or grieving, maybe self-pity. In the first line he summarizes his conflict: What is the purpose of my life (O me!), if life is so hard (O life!)? He comments about the “endless trains of the faithless” and “cities filled with the foolish” and then he humbly notes that he is the most foolish and faithless of them all and he is “forever reproaching” himself. I do that. So by beginning with a question, he makes an unusual choice by providing the answer to his questions:

Answer: (he gets the answer from himself)

That the powerful play goes on (choose life, powerful life)

And you may contribute a verse (everybody gets to equally contribute something, anything – a verse suggests something different from everyone else – if we were the same he would have said chorus)

What I love about the ending is that instead of wallowing in self-pity by leaving the question open and out there unanswered, he is strong enough (don’t we always have just a little juice in us to keep going?) to know the answer but there is no condescension about it. He pushes that universal button of empathy for life’s difficulties and his humility opens the door to us. He manifests his belief that life is powerful, but he doesn't offer a quick fix to humanities problems he intimates that we (everyone one of us) are contributing to society just by being alive…each one of us in a unique way.

But that’s not even half of the emotion it contains.

The tone of Walt Whitman’s famous poem starts with the very first word, which is in fact just a single vowel: O. This kind of O, the kind without the “h” attached to it, is special. You see it in the scriptures, in Greek theatrical texts, in Shakespeare too. We hardly ever think about its meaning because it’s just a single letter. But it’s so much more than just an O. It has been given the formal name “Ecphonesis O” by modern linguists. Sometimes it’s called the rhetorical O.

Ec-phonesis is Greek, and means “to cry out.” It’s derived from “exclameo,” to cry out. “Ecphonesis is a pathetical figure, whereby as the Orator or speaker expresses the vehement affection and passion of his own mind, so he also excites and stirs up the minds and affections of those to whom he speaks.” (JG Smith)

In Milton’s Paradise Lost the character of Eve, being told that she must leave her paradise, cries out, "O unexpected stroke! Worse than of death.”

This O elevates the emotion automatically! But why the heck is it missing its H?

Because I teach and study in Shakespeare’s world, when I coach our high school kids this is what I tell them when they ask the question “why doesn’t it have an H if you still pronounce it Oooooo?”

Well you really don’t pronounce it “o.” Early authors used the single O as a placeholder for emotional exclamations like “GRRRRR!” or “sighhhhh,” or “#!%*!” The Ecphonesis O is only used when the emotion is so high that there aren’t words for how troubled, or angry or happy a person is. Now days we might substitute the O with a piece of music and call it musical theatre. But Milton, Shakespeare, Sophocles and the authors of the bible didn’t write musicals. They couldn’t spell that moment in time when your body is wracked with torment and you expel a guttural “YAWP” as Walt Whitman would say:

The Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
          of my gab and my loitering
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
          I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Ever wondered why you never see movie or stage characters blowing their nose or going to the bathroom? We recreate life on stage or in a book for entertainment or education. We don’t watch a play about someone brushing their teeth or tying their shoes. There is no conflict in that. We don’t learn anything from it. It isn’t COMPELLING. However…add the Ecphonesis O to a script where Ruby the 8th grader goes to brush her teeth and she lets out a deep throaty “OOOOooooo” there’s something to that. She looks down and all her teeth are in the sink. WHAT IS HAPPENING? Now that's dramatic. That needs an O.

See, storytelling is only interesting when compelling things occur. So the Ecphonesis O is very useful for a playwright to give the actor/reader a clue about the grand emotion that is happening. There are upwards of 2400 Ecphonesis O’s in the Shakespeare canon alone.

Here’s a few good ones:

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo!
O what a rogue in peasant slave am I…
O no! It is an ever fixed mark…
O you beast! O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
O reason not the need!
O let me be not mad, not mad sweet heaven!
O brave new world that hath such people in it!
O, O, O, I have lost my reputation!

The O didn't die with Shakespeare and Whitman. We've all used it at points in our life. There were a couple of times in my life when I tested the magnitude of the Ecphonesis O. One real doozy come to mind. I was living in the basement of my parent’s home trying to save money to buy my own home and I got a letter from one of my student’s parents rebuking me for not casting her daughter in a play. Her daughter was a loud, angry and negative soul. I think she reveled in creating drama backstage and I just couldn't face another show adding “put out [this girl’s] fires” to my to-do list again.

So I didn’t cast her.

I think that’s what parents don’t understand. They think by not signing their name to a steaming, stinky letter like that they are saving their child from some kind of retribution or retaliation from a teacher that can cast their children in plays. What they don’t know is that we need the system to function and I save myself a lot of trouble by not casting your kid. It’s never about you. I don’t care what you say. I know what I know.

Anyway... I digress. That's another blog for another time.

I was working late hours trying to put up the show, give kids an opportunity, seemingly by myself, and I was exhausted to say the least. In the middle of the night, I walked through the dark school up to the faculty room to buy a Diet Coke to keep myself awake. I grabbed my mail from my box and sat down on a comfortable chair and started going through it while I drank my precious Diet Coke. There was the letter. It was addressed to me but no return address, and no signature, though from its contents I knew exactly who it was. In a nutshell it said I was emotionally abusive and didn't know how to handle kids because I wasn't a mother myself. She called me “useless” because I was “free-loading” off my parents by living with them. (Everybody knows everything in a small town I guess.) She punched and kicked and stabbed. When I had finished digesting the letter I let out a cry that certainly defined the Ecphonesis O. It wasn't because the letter hurt me. It was because I suspected the letter was true. I was at that point in my life where I suspected I was useless except as a machine to showcase other people’s kids. And since I had chosen not to showcase her daughter this time, she had chosen to stab at my insecurities as an older, single, childless, Mormon woman with no prospects in sight to complete her version of who I should be. (You can only cut so close to the bone if you are also Mormon, which she was.)

I sat in that chair for a good hour, spilling Ecphonesis O after Ecphonesis O in heaps all over the floor. Crying out "...The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?" It was the kind of crying that makes your eyes pop out. It turns your face into a swollen flat surface. It gives you a migraine. It's wet and slobbery and you don't care. It makes you bend in half toward yourself, hug your knees, wipe snot on your pants because you might be the only one that can offer comfort in that moment. It makes you heave and gulp for air and whimper, all at the same time.

In the midst of it all, I started praying. I prayed that I could find out who I was and why I was truly alive. What purpose did He have for me and if this was it – just being the machine – I wanted o.u.t. I cried until I was finally able to ask Him to help me stop crying. I felt the Spirit wrap its arms around me and I fell asleep.

Around 5 AM I was awaken by the sound of custodial keys in the door. I bolted upright and looked at the clock. I sat there for a minute in a fog as the custodian laughed. I tried to remember why I was there and then I saw the letter – still clutched in my hand and it all came back to me. I laughed it off with “boy, that was a comfortable chair!” or something lame like that, and went home to shower so I could come back and do it all again. My eyes were two tiny puffy slits but I was emboldened with the kind of motivation that makes you write letters of resignation, which I did, and never submitted. I needed someone to notice me. I needed change. I needed my absence to count. I needed to be enough. Something.

My parents, long accustomed to me spending the night at the school, were still in bed when I got home. No one would know I had been gone all night. No one would care. No one would even raise an eyebrow… except the laughing custodian.

It is in times like these I am tempted to go on auto-pilot and tell myself that even my least passionate work, just my instinctual work, is still good enough. And then the guilt of working halfheartedly adds to the building disgust I have for myself. I create a fantasy world where I have 3 kids and a mini-van. Where people say “you’re kids are gorgeous!” or “your kids are so well behaved.” I crave teaching my own children how to walk, ride a bike, sew, bake… (grass is always greener). But the only thing I could really do to take my mind off of it, to fill the time, was disappear into a dark movie theatre by myself where I didn't have to talk to anyone and someone else could entertain me. (Ironic that I ended up teaching film.) Silly me, those moments only made me feel more sorry for myself. 

You can imagine that the other Ecphonesis O's in my life are not surprising and involve the years of bitterness, loneliness, finally getting married and then subsequent miscarriages and burying a baby. Those are obvious. But most of those O's were filled with hope, faith and a knowledge that those blessings will be restored if I am faithful and endure my trials. Some of those O's were bitter, but not for long. They taught me so much. They actually increased my faith and gave me strength, depth and empathy for others. Is that it? Is that it's function? I might be on to something.

My favorite Ecphonesis O is taken from the New Testament. The teacher in me appreciates what the O does to elevate emotion, but the human in me, the person that has utilized the Ecphonesis O a few time in my life as I have spoken in desperation, grief or gratitude to my Heavenly Father makes this particular "yawp," this cry, so significant to me.

At the close of Jesus’ public ministry, He found himself at the top of a hill overlooking Jerusalem, the Holy City, lamenting. The children of Israel had rejected Him and the safety He brought to them. As He looked out over the soon to be destroyed city, He was overcome with emotion and expressed His anguish:

          “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!”

Just a few years later, the city was obliterated by the Romans, fulfilling the prophesy. Imagine being able to see that in the future and not able to prevent it because of the hardness of the hearts of your people. Jesus Christ knew the Ecphonesis O. He probably invented it; for "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted." They who saw Him suffer, instead of seeing the sacrifice in it, imagined that He was suffering at God's hands. In His greatest agonies, they scoffed at His alleged parentage, yet in His death He would save them all.

I often wonder who the atheists turn to in the depths of an Ecphonesis O moment? What Omnipotent power comforts them in their darkest moments? To whom are they grateful? I'm ignorant here and I admit it. Who sustains them, makes them powerful? Maybe that's the big idea here. The trials that bring on the Ecphonesis O are a necessary evil. They brings us to our knees, they reminds us who we are and that we are not alone. We are simply building an unbreakable connection and life line to the endless power from whence we came.

Let the mighty trials and tribulations roll forth...BRING IT! Though I will probably always feel "foolish...faithless...intertwined in the plodding and sordid crowds" its my verse.

And I'm enough.